Senator Bill Nelson checked in with local political and community leaders this morning in Pensacola, spending most of the meeting discussing the RESTORE Act. The Florida senator said that the effort to keep 80 percent of fine money resulting from BP’s 2010 oil spill in the Gulf Coast region had passed the senate and is currently hung up in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“As you can see, before we came home for Easter we could not get the house to move,” Nelson said, adding that the RESTORE Act must not be diluted by Congress. “If we go amending the RESTORE Act very much down in the house, all kinds of bad things could happen.”
The senator also addressed recent efforts to open up the eastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico to energy exploration. He said he supports the ban currently in place for Florida’s portion of the gulf—because it is necessary for military training purposes—and will work to ensure it remains off limits to drilling.
“It doesn’t make any difference, there’s not any oil out there,” he said, contending that most of the sizable reserves in the Gulf are farther west.
Currently, Nelson told the local crowd, there are 32 million acres leased for drilling in the Gulf. Only six million of those acres are currently being tapped.
“So, why is there this relentless effort to keep pushing in the Gulf under the guise of drill baby drill?” he asked rhetorically, adding that oil companies push for more open area because the increased inventory would increase a given company’s worth.
The senator said that he is currently involved in an effort to require energy companies to actually drill on the areas it has leased.
“We’re going to try to change the law where it says, ‘you either use it, or lose it,’” he said.
Senator Nelson’s Pensacola pow-wow was held in the administrative board room on the campus on Pensacola State College. He opened the meeting with some local nods: congratulating Bubba Watson on winning the Masters and dogging FEMA for not adequately reimbursing the city of Pensacola for hurricane debris removal.
The senator also took a moment to recognize Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson’s instrumental role in organizing a group of Gulf Coast officials to lobby for the RESTORE Act. He said he had known the Robinson family for many years and appreciated the the commissioner’s support on RESTORE.
“I always like to talk about Grover,” Nelson said, “because I knew him when he was just a little-shaver.”
At the end of Nelson’s remarks, local officials were given the opportunity to ask the senator questions. Escambia County Commissioner Chairman Wilson Robertson started off the Q&A with a question regarding the effects of the oil spill on the food chain in the Gulf of Mexico, and what that means for the seafood industry as well as future legal settlements.
Robertson told the senator that if there was an as-of-yet unrealized problem in the Gulf’s fishery, that any financial settlement with BP at this point would fail to address such a long-term toll.
“If we do a settlement and get $8 billion, $10 billion, $20 billion—that’s chump change,” the commission chairman said. “If it effects us forever, we’re dead.”
Nelson told the chairman that the spill’s effects would need to be continuously monitored, but that a settlement should be sought even without knowing the extent of the damage.
“I have to deal in the practical,” he said.
Jeff Bergosh, vice chairman of the Escambia County School Board, asked the senator about mounting student loans facing today’s college students and graduates. He wondered what might be done to curb the problem.
“How can you help address that to where it doesn’t push our economy—which is very fragile now—back into a recession?” Bergosh said.
“That’s a problem we’ve got to get at,” Nelson told him.
After the meeting, the senator asked Commissioner Robinson if the local real estate market was getting any better. He said he was hearing good reports out of the rest of the state.
“It’s very fragile,” Robinson said. “That’s the way I’d describe it right now.”
Upon leaving Pensacola, Senator Nelson will travel to Fort Walton Beach and Panama City, where he will hold similar community meetings. Following those stops, the senator will travel to Washington County, where his great-great-granddad first settled in Florida.
“I know where he’s buried,” Senator Nelson said. “—in the cemetery in the middle of the cow pasture.”